Huge Rise In NHS Emergency Cases

A huge rise in the number of people seeking emergency medical attention has triggered an investigation into why more Scots are turning to the NHS. Frontline health services in Scotland are facing growing pressure at nights and weekends, although levels of serious illness are believed to be the same.

Independent research into the phenomenon has been commissioned amid concern the service is suffering due to society’s shift to a 24-hour supermarket culture.

Details of the probe come as the NHS prepares for one of the busiest weekends of the year with the fall-out from Hogmanay and the closure of GP surgeries for four consecutive days.

Dr George Crooks, medical director of NHS 24, said: “If you ask any A&E consultant in Scotland, they will all say that the number of people turning up is increasing. We have noticed increasing numbers of people contacting all out of hours services, be it phoning NHS 24, walking into A&E or phoning the ambulance service, which has had an increased number of 999 calls. We at the NHS are not entirely sure why that is happening. The one thing we do know is the number of people who are acutely or seriously ill actually does not change. That stays constant.

“So we have to understand the situation. We are looking to commission a piece of research to look across the whole of the NHS as to what is the reason for health-seeking behaviour.”

Data shows a dramatic rise in the rates of emergency hospitals admissions in Scotland over 20 years – more than doubling among the over 85 age group.
However, a study has shown this is not due to the ageing population or greater levels of illness among the elderly.

Instead the researchers suggest changes in society and community care are behind the pattern, noting many more elderly people now live alone.

The Scottish Ambulance Service has also seen an unexpected increase in 999 calls. Between April 2005 and April 2006 they received nearly 15,000 more 999 calls than in the previous year, an 11% increase.

There are also signs more people are phoning the NHS 24 helpline, which had a busier Christmas this year than last. It handled 40,267 calls for the four-day period when GP surgeries were closed last week, compared with 39,148 for the same spell in 2005.

Dr Crooks said there were a number of theories behind this NHS-wide trend, including the new pay and conditions deal which allowed GPs to opt out of providing emergency care outside surgery hours.

Dr Crooks said: “Some people will say that it is the new GP contract, others will say it is the 24-hour supermarket culture, others will say patients are aware that they may get a more rapid and effective response calling out of hours than in hours. But we have no evidence to say it is one or another. Is it that granny no longer lives around the corner? I suspect it is a bit of all of these things, but until we understand what it is we cannot put support systems in place to empower people to take responsibility for their health.”

Work on the research, which will be commissioned from an independent body, is expected to start in the new year.